People as Connected Devices

By Khris Kammer, Information Partner and Competency Manager, Rockwell Automation on behalf of Industrial IP Advantage

What’s the connection between industrial manufacturing and the consumer revolution in wearable digital devices?

Not much – yet …

But just as mobile IP devices such as tablets are moving onto factory floors, wearable technology eventually will help convert people into an integral part of the industrial Internet of Things.

Wireless devices with capabilities similar to today’s smart watches and fitness trackers will share worker-generated data automatically and seamlessly with factory networks.

Already, workers use bar-code and RFID scanners to automatically upload data about materials delivered or consumed in the production process. These devices free many workers from the time-consuming – and error-prone – tasks of manually keying information into production databases.

The biggest benefit of such “low-effort” data collection: Workers can focus on value-add efforts, which revolve around optimizing the manufacturing process instead of just running and documenting it. Data collection, in itself, is not a value-add activity, but knowing what’s going on in the production process – as close to real time as possible – is critical for high-return productivity.

Nothing comes closer to real-time than digital data. That’s another reason IP-connected devices will proliferate on plant floors and among workers in the coming years.

As in the past, the adoption rate in the industrial realm is expected to lag well behind the consumer space. A case in point: digital tablets. Fewer than 5 percent of manufacturers use hand-held tablets in their factories today, while more than half of American adults own a tablet or e-reader.

All predictions are that the number of tablets on plant floors will grow, largely because they enable mobility. Instead of having to hover around an HMI for production information, for example, operators and technicians can use tablets to view operational data while they’re right next to equipment.

In the not-too-distant future, wearable Wi-Fi devices could eliminate the need for certain industrial employees to spend time recording data. Consider the possibilities… Advanced location-aware and activity-aware technologies – such as those in the Apple Watch and FitBits – could be used to automatically track and trace the movements of employees who handle materials in a plant. This type of application would be especially valuable in highly regulated industries like pharmaceuticals and food-and-beverage, where virtually every step in the process requires documentation.

Wireless wearable devices could also help companies get more precise with activity-based costing. Instead of estimating expenses associated with a production process, such as labor, companies could more accurately access and analyze those costs using digital data automatically collected by employees’ wearable devices.

Of course, wearable devices raise the same privacy and security concerns shared by other personal digital technologies, but perhaps to an even greater extent. Manufacturers will have to address these issues with smart policies and clear employee communications. Workers need to know the rules on digital device use – and the reasons behind the rules. Trust is essential between the employer and the employee, based on an open and shared understanding of what data will be collected and how it will be used.

Ultimately, the challenges will be overcome, as the benefits of applying this type of technology to industrial data collection are too great to ignore.